King's College London
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West of Suez: Britain and the Mediterranean, 1704-1967

The geography and antiquities of Ithaca

Engraving showing the port of Bathi, capital of the island Ithaca, with ships, buildings and mountains visibleView from the town of BathiFrom the 13th century onwards, Venice progressively obtained control of islands and territories outside Italy that had once been part of the Byzantine Empire. Among the former were the seven ‘Illustrious’ Ionian islands of Corfu, Paxo, Santa Maura, Ithaca, Cefalonia, Zante and Cerigo.

Other Venetian possessions in mainland Greece (the Morea) and the Greek-speaking islands, such as Crete and Cyprus, became part of the Ottoman Empire, but the Ionian Islands remained under Venetian rule until the end of the Republic itself.

The Treaty of Campo Formio (October 1797) dissolved the Venetian Republic, and the islands briefly became part of the French Republic. The following year, a combined force of Russians and Ottomans began a successful campaign to capture the islands from the French. From 1800 the Ionian Islands enjoyed nominal independence as the ‘Septinsular Republic’, under Ottoman suzerainty and Russian military occupation.

In 1806 William Gell, (1777-1836), an antiquarian who travelled extensively in the eastern Mediterranean at the beginning of his career, sailed from the Peloponnese, accompanied by a fellow antiquarian, Edward Dodwell, to visit the island of Ithaca.

The image shown here, from a plate probably engraved from one of Gell’s own drawings, depicts the capital of the island, the port of Bathi, where they arrived on Ascension Day. Gell describes the festivities and the charm of the island in spring, noting, ‘the only military force consisted of a Russian serjeant and twelve privates, who lived in perfect harmony with the inhabitants.’

The chief purpose of his visit, however, was to look for locations from the Odyssey. There was much contemporary interest in ancient sites with a Homeric connection, and Ithaca was renowned as the home of Odysseus.

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